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December 1997

Modern Art sheds its Skin: Nature versus knowledge at the Kunsthalle's

COBRA, an exhibition of art from Copenhagen, Brussely, and Amsterdam, runs at the Hypo-Kunsthalle

Hipp, hipp, hurra!" cheers a crew of colorful, cock-eyed beasts in Karrel Appel's 1949 oil painting of the same name: the war is over, and new life begins. The four fire-breathing figures sketched with childlike simplicity bid welcome to the Hypo-Kunsthalle's current exhibition "COBRA," an acronym for Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, cities which were home to the 50 members of an extraordinary artistic alliance in the years immediately following World War II. The 200 works on display until January 11 exude an eerie joie de vivre typical of the postwar era, underscoring its new-found youth, cautious hope, and search for new beginnings. COBRA was born in 1948 on politically neutral ground in the back room of a popular Paris café. Agents of various European artistic undergrounds created COBRA to pursue a common cause: healing the wounds war had inflicted on artistic and intellectual advance. Of its founders, the group's most influential forerunners were artists belonging to the Danish anti-occupation effort Helhesten. True to their namesake, the three-leggedhorse of hell in Scandinavian myth, they harnessed their passionate hatred of German cultural domination to carry apocalyptic themes to the hilt. This aim no longer sufficed once the war was over, but because Helhesten was built on a sturdy foundation - the belief in free expression, and national self-determination - the group survived the Third Reich's fall. Together with like-minded artists in Brussels and Amsterdam, it shifted its focus to a positive effort and cohesive style as controversial when first exhibited 50 years ago as it is refreshing and revealing today. The one-month-old show is a scintillating tour through modern art's splashy mid-life crisis. COBRA borrows the visual appeal of Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró's decades earlier work and combines it with northern European lore and Neo-primitivism. Contemporary trends like Jean Dubuffet's macabre art brut, hewn from oil paint and psychosis, lent the movement its penchant for stick figures and naive representation. The marriage was magic: old and new bridged World War I and post-World War II élan,recalling a time when artists took one long last look at their modern heritage and set off on the hunt for new horizons. The works exhibited at the Hypo-Kunsthalle fall into two categories: those that celebrate innocence, and those that mourn its loss. Alongside Appel's happy animal entourages, Else Alfelt's landscapes revel in polychrome bliss. Her 1948 series, "The Blue Mountains," "Mountain Symphony," and "Impressions in the Mountains," yields an expressionistic cacophony of color and motion that rejoices in the unspoiled state of nature, a garden yet uncontaminated by mankind. Alfelt's momentous brushstrokes send the scenes soaring, with rapid stabs of green and blue plunging the viewer into the pure crystalline depths of Norwegian vistas. The fjords' virgin state, like the blithe stares of Appel's animals, are painful to behold. Knowledge - of mankind's duplicity and Europe's devastation at the time of their creation - reveals the artifice behind their joy. The artist Constant knows and narrates wartime woes, alternating means poetic and prosaic to drive his point home. Allegory is his handmaiden in "Bird Caught in a Net." The protagonists, the net and the bird, are actually the unforgiving warp and weft of anti-aircraft fire and a blood-spattered exploding plane. Nature is the victim of human iniquity, a painful realization composed of sickly hues and chaotically applied brushstrokes. It is a visual parallel to gruesome descriptions of wartime suffering in Jerzy Kosinsky's celebrated novel The Painted Bird, in which the evil bird catcher traps innocence and systematically destroys it. Constant's tactic turns trite in "Scorched Earth III" and "Air Raid," featuring an invisible force that blows animals, earth and people to bits. Lucebert, another one-name COBRA collaborator, carries Constant's articulation into the late '50s with "Butterfly Collector" and "Untitled," paintings visually homogenous to Pablo Picasso's 1937 wartime epic "Guernica." COBRA tells a complicated tale that defies simple summary. There is no one way to read the artists' message, especially since each artwork introduces a new twist on an old story. Whether vibrant and vivacious or gray and grim, the works vie with one another to tell the tale of how war can crush a continent, but no matter how dire the damage, art can save its soul.

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